Religion in War-Time
With Side Glances at Mr. Wells
By William Ernest Hocking
[The Atlantic Monthly, September 1918]
The decks of the new Cunarder on this particular evening were wet, blowy, and pitch dark. We were chancing it at full steam ahead; but to the lay sense there was no token of direction as the ship settled down to the steady churning of the night. Here in the drawing-room we could fancy ourselves ballooning about in the midst of space, the universe unrolling itself equably in all quarters from this genial focus.
'The trouble is,' remarked McGill, Canadian banker, 'the trouble is that church people are not enough in earnest about their own faith.'
'Out of touch,' muttered Waterman.
As a man of leisure—rare object on shipboard in these, days—Waterman seldom took the trouble to interpret his oracles.
But Andrews, accredited to the British Embassy at Washington and wise at thirty, was manifestly impatient with these conservative expressions of discontent. 'How much religion do you think there is at the front to-day? None at all. I mean it literally. The chaplain is the most useless and the most unhappy man in the service.'
'Out of touch.'
Waterman removed his pipe for the purpose of launching this comment with greater force, and then resumed his smoking and his silence. Andrews went on without swerving:—
'I have a friend, a chaplain, one of the head ones at the front—couldn't be a better— been there three years. He tells me, confidentially, that there is no market for his goods. He is going to give it up, first chance, and try holding services in London, anniversaries of battles and that sort of thing.
'Religion! what is there in it for the Tommies? What they have got to go on is the simple principle of playing the game. That's it—that's their religion: to play the game! If they don't, some of their own comrades will have to pay, and they know it: that is what keeps them up to it. All the rest, creeds and prayers and so on—well, it has no application, that's all; they've no time for it, no appetite for it.'
I remarked that 'playing the game' might qualify as a code of ethics, but hardly as a religion. If this is all, we might better accept the first statement, that there is no religion at the front. And to judge from what I had casually seen in a few sectors here and there, the statement might easily have been true. But religion seldom appears to the eye, particularly during business hours in the war-zone. The realistic observer runs a high risk of losing the only important facts; it is necessary to look behind behavior to the motives that are sustaining it. If, in spite of numerous good reasons for not playing the game, men still play it, the likelihood is that there are some deep-lying reasons at work.
'Which only shows,' interposed Andrews, 'that the idealistic observer runs the opposite risk—that of seeing what is not there.'
'You mean,' I said, 'that soldiers have no convictions, or, at least, make no heavy use of them?'
'I mean that it is simply poor psychology to talk of "deep-lying convictions," if you are thinking of what keeps a soldier in the game when every common impulse is prompting him to get out of it. What keeps him there is plain human nature—instinct: that's the word—instinct.'
Andrews warmed to his subject:—
'There's an unrelenting something that runs through the race and won't let a man give up; and the race that has most of it wins. You know, these Tommies of ours—something takes hold of them, they'll tell you: a curious mad glee at flinging themselves into the face of hell; they stop feeling things; they go on like possessed; maybe it is the race gets into them. At all odds, it is quite different from religion as the churches see it.'
Andrews seemed uneasily aware that in talking about 'the race' in that metaphysical tone, he had begun to wear the edge thin between his 'plain human nature' and religion. I ventured a doubt whether the churches would be willing to leave 'instinct' out of religion: they would probably want to add something to it. These blind impulses and capacities for devotion need something to tie up to. Religion supplies them with this when it supplies them with a creed. And an instinct plus a creed is a conviction—isn't it? I was inclined to stand by the word. But Andrews was obdurate. 'Damn meagre creed, if you are going in for the actual state of mind of any representative fighting men—take Tommy Atkins—take your fellows, whatever you call them—something better than Yanks, I hope."
'How much of a creed does it take to make a religion?' I pursued. 'Nothing very elaborate: say, a belief that the world we live in is itself alive and not dead; that the life in it is good and not bad—in short, a belief in a God; and a belief that our own personal lives with their meaning may go on after death.'
'That would hardly satisfy me"—it was McGill who entered this caveat. But Waterman, presumably as a sportsman rather than as a theologian, roused himself to pronounce, 'Let it pass;' while Andrews uttered a tolerant, but defiant, 'Well?'
'Well,' I found myself echoing, 'if you accept this as a sort of common denominator of current convictions in our civilian world, why do you think the average soldier more destitute of such ideas than the average citizen he evolves from—or don't you think so?'
'Yes, rather. And why? Because war, especially this war, makes the men who are in it distinguish their dreams from their facts and their facts from their dreams.'
'Very likely,' I said; 'but which are the facts and which are the dreams?'
Andrews scrutinized me. 'If the creed we speak of is a dream,' I continued, 'I should certainly expect it to come off the worse for war; but if your hard-fact realism—'
'Bring on the evidence, then. What results are our men coming to?' Andrews pressed his point.
'Who knows?' I rejoined; 'who knows enough to make a sweeping statement? What one finds here and there is what one might well expect: men are driven both ways, some one way and some another. Neutrality is what disappears: spiritual neutrality goes the way of political neutrality. Taking men as talk, there is plenty of sporadic evidence on any side you choose. We have all heard of the boy in training who walked up to his chaplain and said, "See here, I've been thinking this thing over; and I am going to chuck my religion for the duration of the war."
'In Paris I met an old friend who was just then on convalescent leave. I put to him this question point-blank: "Are you coming to think of human beings more as temporary aggregates of head-power and horse-power, or more as souls in the old sense?"
'''More as things," he said, after a pause, "things of nature." And he went on to tell of an event a few days old, which was evidently still much on his mind—-a collision between two of his comrades in the escadrille, a straight head-on smash between a machine starting, out and one just returning. Details don't matter. The wreckage had to be cleared away in haste, and fifteen minutes later they were carrying on as usual—or thought they were. My friend ended his story with an apparently disconnected remark: "I don't know that fighting is doing me any particular good."
'But here is a straw at another angle. You know Lieutenant Colonel Teak. During the July offensive he was in charge of a C.C.S. back of Messines.'
'Yes, but what is an army surgeon likely to know about this?'
'More than most, if he has his eyes open,' I replied. 'No one else sees as much as he does of the subconscious regions of the men's minds. It is the subconscious region in which a man keeps the thoughts he is not thinking of: most people keep their religion there a good part of the time, soldiers most of the time.
'Well, Colonel Teak handled thousands of wounded during that offensive. "Naturally," he said to me, "we have to tell a good many that we can't do anything for them. And what surprises me is not that so few are anxious about it, but that most of them take it for granted, apparently, that death is simply a transition, important perhaps, but not terrible, and that they are to live on, elsewhere—-"'
It was clear that Andrews regarded the question as equivalent to a refutation. At the same moment, Waterman made the comment, 'Early training'—equally conclusive—and McGill began a speech:—'No matter what you say, gentlemen, I doubt whether there are any genuine skeptics at the front, or anywhere else at this moment. We all live and act on a faith which we may superficially question or forget; but it is there. It is Christianity.'
'Why Christianity? Why not something more simple and universal, something less partisan and less incredible to the mass of men? Here is H. G. Wells—I don't know what you may think of his philosophy, but his voice at this moment is certainly earnest and commands respect. Isn't there a good deal of sense in his plea for simplifying our ideas of religion?'
I was hoping to get all this said, not by way of stating my own views, but by way of bringing McGill into the current of contemporary criticism. But he went on through my words:—
'Behind all our efforts and aims, in war and elsewhere, there is a standard, a hero if you like. And there is one figure that none of us can escape. I make no bones about it, gentlemen, I am a simple man. I take Jesus of Nazareth; I take the scriptures; I find my religion there. I am a man of business—I want something definite. Where does Mr. Wells get to? Where does G. K. Chesterton get to? Where do all you philosophers get to? You land us in vague abstractions. They sound well; but when you come down to substance and meaning, what is it? You leave us to fall back on the concrete religion of the Gospels. And whether they confess it or not, it is in force—I am as sure of it as that I am sitting here—it is in force with our boys in the trenches. It is what they take hold of, or try to. And if religion falls down anywhere under strain, the trouble is that we—mark you, I do not say the church or the clergy: everybody tries to take a fall out of them—the trouble is that we are not enough in earnest about it.'
It was a fine avowal; and McGill, as if to signify that he regarded the matter settled, passed around the photographs of his family.
Andrews, who had been unable to decoy McGill into a discussion of just where he was sitting, assured him that he had not the slightest objection to Christianity, regarding it simply as a pictorial version of normal instincts—'fraternity, humanity, and all that sort of thing.' But McGill's honest, clear-cut features indicated that he neither trusted nor understood the diplomat's method of making himself at home in Christendom, and that, as a man and a Scotchman, predestined to orthodoxy, he was resolved to accept his theological fate, as the best available proposition.'
In discussing the religion of the soldier, Andrews and McGill had shed some light on their own, and on the general status of religion in war-time. No one now shuns ultimate questions, no one feigns indifference, few assume final knowledge. This alone is a gain. Surely there is an awakening in the fact of war, as there is in the fact of love; and at this moment the terrible awakening of the one is as universal as the gracious awakening of the other.
But there is no greater certainty in the one than in the other how durable the awakening will be, or what meaning it will bear. Here were Andrews and McGill, sufficiently representative men, stirred by the present shakings of the world just enough to—talk, and to summon themselves, not to openness of mind, but to a tighter, more 'loyal' grip upon their opposing prepossessions.
And have not Andrews and McGill been confronting one another, mutually impervious, these fifty years, confirming one another in their contrasting fixities, helping the world's need of new vision not one jot? The war had begun to reach and mobilize their wills; it had not yet penetrated the fastnesses of their intellects. They were ready to make many sacrifices, only not the most difficult sacrifice, that of mutual understanding.
As for the men in the trenches, their image was still vivid with me, and I thought I knew how to estimate the report of widespread religious awakening among them. We have to face the fact that there is nearly nothing, either in the landscape of war or in the business of war, to sustain for long a religious attitude of mind.
There are undoubtedly moments in every soldier's career that stand out from the rest with an approach to religious significance. Enlistment. There is probably no one critical decision which men make in so great a variety of tempers; and yet I venture to say that almost always there is something that sets this particular act of dedication apart in the mind of the decider. It becomes a subconscious asset; it tends to put him on fundamental good terms with the invisible universe as with visible society. And it is likely to serve as an unuttered argument to the effect that God, if there be a God, will not be too hard on him, whatever happens.
There are men, and I believe not a few, in whom the doing of this one deed deflects the whole balance of existence into generous and devoted ways. An abrupt release from self-absorption has for most human beings the force of a discovery.
And then there are bound to be later moments, erratic, incalculable, when the simple starkness and incredibility of the whole affair sets the mind off on a flight of rebellious freedom, denying that this can be a complete or fair account of the realities of the world. Or when a touch of searching fear reminds one of the loneliness of every personal self in that vast impersonal mill of misery and death, and one achieves another denial—the denial that this apparent loneliness is real, because existence itself is a companionship with an unseen but inescapable will. These elementary denials are the first point in all religion.
But time is the enemy of all such moments—time and habit and the fact that the war-world, well fitted to raise ultimate questions, is incomparably poor in the stuff for their answer. For what the soldier habitually faces has little of revelation in it: chiefly a unique proportion of the tedious and relentlessly wearing, and at times, of the menacing, sordid, ghastly, painful. The cafard which seizes in time the most adventurous spirits is not simply a homesickness due to the starvation of most appetites above the animal level: it is a type of mental dismay, inability to achieve a sense of footing and reality in a habitat immeasurably inauspicious. If one were looking for speculative questions, here is the ancient and lightly labeled 'problem of evil' in an aggravated form: but the soldier knows in advance what sort of thing is to be said about it. To endure this is the concrete filling of those soldierly virtues whose names he has sufficiently heard: to go through with it is what is expected of him. His effort is less to think it through than to see it through. Deathly weariness, the intense concern for the physical routine, the prevalent type of passion, the value that accrues upon a temper of insouciance—everything predisposes to a lethargy of mind and a dulling of the speculative interest, without which there is no religious vitality.
To say that thought is baffled would be misleading. One might rather say that thought is shunned, that men commonly protect themselves against it by ingenious time-filling and head-filling devices. The soldier's one mental luxury is complete rest in regard to his presuppositions. His life is no more in his own hands. He adopts thoughtlessness and the crude but effective philosophy of 'Smile' as he adopts a pioneering exterior: they fit the environment, or at least they offer the best impromptu prospect of survival.
The miracle of undepressible spirit (the same, with temperamental variations, in all our armies) has been called a Christian virtue. I venture to doubt whether it is anything of the sort. It is a necessity of life and an inevitable product of the experience which finds that two types of comrade are intolerable: the caver-in and the man who adopts a theoretical or consciously Christian optimism. A core of impenetrable cheerfulness beneath a coat of purely linguistic 'grousing' is a natural solution. No doubt there is instinct in it, as Andrews would insist. More than this, it is youth, plain unbreakable tenacity of grip on life. More still, it is a ready-made philosophy, furnished with an array of saws and jokes, sentinels against the intrusion of ideas. But in any case, it is no soil for reflection, and hence of no direct significance for religion.
And the negative effect of the landscape of war is ably seconded by that of the business of warring. It is false to say that war brutalizes men: war itself does neither one thing nor another. But it is true that fighting demands the overcoming of certain scruples which have stood as bulwarks against the primitive passions; and unless a noble severity enters in their place, some ground will be lost. Absolute disillusionment and a dead realism—no one can truly say that this is the soldier's philosophy. But no one can truly deny that it is a mood into which every soldier is likely now and then to fall. So far, Barbusse is a true witness. Religion is not out of touch with the fighter: the fighter may well be—for much of the time—psychologically out of touch with religion.
And he will at times stand appalled by the gamut of his own nature, dizzy with the clash of the creeds that fit his divergent characters—the destroying fiend, the good Samaritan, the fatalist, the visionary—half-persuaded that the sacrifice of his own soul is an integral part of the sacrifice required of him in this contest with public crime. It is well that the representative of religion should be there, with his silent affirmation that, in spite of appearances, God is in his heaven; or with his concrete reminder, Christ met all this and kept his faith; or with his universally appreciated touch of decorum in the last rites. These are the staples of religion, and they may show which way the die tends to fall. But the occasion is not one for religious progress. For, the moment the world must live on its religious capital as on its economic capital; and the outcome will be a test of the solvency of the past decade, not of the productivity of the present. The lost opportunities of the churches—so far as they have been lost—are chiefly those that existed in the fifteen or twenty years preceding the war.
We shall not find the genuine elements of hope in the situation by glossing over its sobering traits. Nor yet by succumbing to the temptation to say that the soldier is subconsciously religious. Subconsciousness was regarded by Myers and by William James as a region of linkage with the divine; by the Freudians as a region of linkage with animality. It may be both; but one is tempted to conclude that the subconscious taken by itself is of no importance whatever. Certainly, a religion that a man does not know he has, is of no importance.
But it is of immense importance what things are working their way forward out of the soil of confused impressions, intuitions, crude hypotheses, into the form of ideas. If the soldier in general is not a thinker, he is far from having a typical and unchanging mentality. A man in full powers, confronted with a mass of data as strange as those that confront a child, he seems less to be making progress than to be set back at the beginning, to labor through the long racial journey of experience: Reduced by necessity to primitive habits, torn abruptly from the ruts of leisurely philosophizing which we commonly follow with dilatory hopefulness, his undeliberate thoughts take shapes which some wise heads are ready to call atavistic. There are occasional outcroppings of superstition, belief in omens, luck, visions, miracles, reversion here and there even to furtive magic practices. Psychologists of that melancholy breed that interprets the life of the army in terms of the life of the crowd are inclined to interpret the mind of the individual soldier in terms of the mind of aboriginal man.
But the word atavism as applied to the common, soldier deserves all the resentment it would arouse in him if he heard it. It is just his involuntary return to the beginning, not to remain there, but to resume in an original, unsophisticated way the age-long journey of thought, that is most promising for the religion of the future. An idea is not necessarily false because it is primitive. To discover for one's self whatever truth there is in simpler phases of religion may be the best way to revitalize more adequate forms more conventionally held.
Of these simpler phases, there are two that seem fairly common at the front—the one, a sort of primitive mysticism, the other, a variety of religious experience that might be called safety-religion.
There is nothing more primitive in religion than mysticism, understood as the conscious merging of personal selfhood in a higher will. One touches the edge of it in that sense of tribal solidarity which Andrews signalized in speaking of the passion of combat. Such intense consciousness of identification with one's unit, or with the larger strand of history in which one takes part, is not necessarily religious. But it may become so; and if the soldier has any special way of access to God, it is probably, as a Will shining through and continuous with the forces there at play, a Will of more than transient or human validity. There are many ways of breaking through the veil of the many to the One. And whoever finds for himself such a way recovers hold upon that thread of primitive mysticism which is the vital and fertile element in all religion.
With this perhaps sporadic and unvocal background of mysticism, I fancy that most men in service take a dip at some time or other into piety of a very different sort—that of personal safety-seeking. The mystic is capable of a fanatical loyalty, because he seeks nothing but the object of his devotion and asks no questions: his prayer is a prayer of communion, that has no further end. But prayer for most men in peril becomes an instinctive petition for personal deliverance; and there is a well-known form of piety in which this self-interested motive forges forward and absorbs all the rest. It fills the line of communicants before action, and leaves it empty afterward; it is consistent with profound moral slumps. It is the side of religion which to many of the sterner-tempered (or, rather, scornfuller-tempered) discredits the whole affair. But most men become aware of the instability of this kind of religion in themselves, make their own silent comments, and move on to a stage less expressive of mere perturbation.
Some, in a brave attempt to adopt the half-truths and false psychology of popular altruism, try to suppress the self that lifted its head in the safety-religion stage, resist the wish to understand or question the Fate in whose hands they are, reach a kind of Stoical rigor of self-control. There are more Stoics in the army than we commonly think. But this austerity of outlook, even if it were within the capacity of everybody, is wholly satisfying to nobody. And the same must be said of a resolute cult of natural beauty sustained by some of the more gifted and poetical minds (like Alan Seeger for example) with a certain greatness of will which still fails to conceal from others or from themselves the heart full of pain beneath, unreconciled and unconvinced.
For our soldiers have been bred in a noble individualism. It is right that they should be unable to satisfy their religious craving in draughts of Roman apathy or in Grecian selective emphasis. The impulse of the safety-religion was not wholly at fault; and the soldier who has outgrown this stage is likely to become a religious groper until he discovers something better than a negative attitude toward the fact of his own suffering and sacrifice. If he achieves that, he has found his way into the precinct of Christianity, as distinct from religion in general. But if he fails to achieve it, he has nevertheless made the basis for a future religious advance.
For if war itself has not supplied him with revelation in large measure, it may yet have endowed him with a great hunger, and a direct undeceivable eye, for judging the world of ideas to which he returns. Already one is aware of a keen wind astir, seeming to bring with it a demand for substance in place of husks, for contemporaneous insight instead of mere inheritance, which may well warn all doctors of religion of a time of reckoning at hand.
But does this mean, as Mr. Wells insists, that we must revise our creeds, and put away our rituals and our priests?
As to the creeds—yes. Creeds, of late, have been at a great discount; but the war has surely dispelled any dull doubts about the fatefulness of the ideas men live by. Yet I doubt whether the revision now needed is what has commonly been meant by that term—a trimming-off of superfluities, a weeding out of errors, a search for a final formula for the 'essence' of the faith—all in the interest of maximal agreement upon a minimal platform. There is no virtue in a minimum of faith. For three centuries it has been the creed of the attacker of creeds that believers have believed too much. We must repudiate this stupid programme of self-impoverishment. For religious experience, like that of science or art, is cumulative, and mankind normally grows richer with time, not poorer. The revision now needed is rather in the interest of making as much as possible as intelligible as possible.
Organized religion has done itself much injustice by an over-indulgence of the antiquarian temper in regard to religious language. Religion is either of profound and immediate concern to men, because it affects their present relation to the ultimate facts of the world, or it is worthless. Hence, nothing can excuse a willing obscuration of possible literalities by figures of speech, or a veiling of actual issues in the haze of romantic distances. The Church has an infinite concern in metaphysics; and the only persons fit to act as teachers of religion are men who have metaphysical convictions and are capable of 'agonized consciences' over questions of truth and error.
If the Church were put to the awkward choice of excommunicating either its heretics or else those priests who are willing to take their creed in a sense primarily historical, psychological, figurative, pragmatic, or diplomatic, it would far better purge itself of those priests and keep the heretics. It would do well to dispense with the approval of persons who wish to flatter it by a Platonic adherence, for sentimental or sesthetic gratification—the religious philanderers of the day. If it begins its creed with an 'I believe in God' it will so far define what it means by God as to correct the gentleman who interpreted the clause as meaning, 'I believe in the beneficence of the open-air life.'
The privilege of taking one's creed in a figurative sense has done yeoman service in the cause of churchly cohesion. Those who regard God as a name, solemn style, for the fortunate legality of events in nature, or for the upward trend of organic evolution, find themselves joined in apparent fellowship with those for whom God is still a personal will, and so forth. To call for literality would threaten the harmony of this alliance, and at a time when we want unity instead of further diversity: it ultra-conservative to face the actual fewness of his numbers; it would require the ultra-radical to face the naked emptiness of a faith which he now decks out in the rich garb of inherited symbolism. I do not say that it would be pleasant; I believe that it would be salutary, and that a genuine rather than a fictitious unity would be reached as a final result. A peace that has to be purchased at the price of not knowing what we think or where we stand with regard to one another, which fosters a general intellectual flabbiness and an inability to persuade men or sway the councils of nations, is surely a deceitful peace and fit to be the mother of wars—as perhaps it has been.
Every true priest makes it his common business to expound the faith in the vernacular. Is it not the obligation of the Church as an organized body to do what these individual agents do, thus relieving the strain of interpretation that now rests so heavily upon them?
In accepting the interpreter's responsibility to be intelligible, the Church would accept the principle that the organ any man has for understanding a language is his own experience. And hardly anything, I believe, will be more fateful for the religious history of the next generation than the success of the Church in expressing its own knowledge of religion, or of Christianity in particular, so that the returning soldier, and others, can recognize it, as something of which their own experience has already spoken, whether or not it was known by that name.
Whatever Christianity may be, it is something which makes itself felt in human relationships; and it is just this side of experience in which the soldier's life is peculiarly rich. If warfare has any intrinsic attractiveness, it lies here. And it may well happen that, in that tortuous and grotesque home which war has made for millions of men, just because of the compact, intense, and violently open comradeships which it develops, the 'strongest thing in the world' may make itself felt, and, like a train of invisible powder, run a rapid course, flaring up in some minds with the force of an unforgettable vision.
What that thing is, is not adequately described by the current words, love, sacrifice, service. It will contain these things, but glorified by a spirit which is constantly rising out of and adding itself to the fraternity of the trenches, resembling the maternal more than any other common thing. It is different from gayety or hopefulness; it is a simple disposition to stand in loco Dei to whoever is at hand. In its presence, each man feels an unreasoned sense of safety, as of one being personally looked out for; and he likewise feels an unreasoned sense of desolation when the bearer of that spirit is gone. But he is likely to know it for what it is, as having its basis in the deepest nature of things, and as bearing with it a summons to carry it on, as if it were an unfinished strand in some super-earthly mesh threading through the confusion of present business.
For possibly the kingdom of heaven is a mesh of this sort, which 'saves' those who are caught in it, by making them bearers and transmitters of its miraculous power. At any rate, it is the thing for which everywhere the groping mind of to-day is seeking—the justification. In the world of labor, is there anything so startling as the conflict of motives, the inner hardness of class-warfare mixing and clashing with the finest spontaneity of self-giving, the profound and impeded desire to believe in something that will conquer envy and greed and suspicion. And when its eye falls on the glint of the true gold, it is ready, as by a touch of magic—the only magic left in the world—to drop all and give all. It is checked by the fact that, while no social problems can be solved without this spirit, yet by itself it can solve none of them.
But thus, for thousands, in various ways, Christianity is beginning to be a word of possible good omen, and even to have an original, tentative, perplexing, experimental meaning. And the creed which can gather this growing presentiment and experience to itself will establish the foundation of a new social order.
But what is to be the fate of ritual and of the professional priesthood that accompanies it?
As a language of the subconscious, ritual strikes a level of human community wider than the vocal expression of the creed, and hence fit, as the creed is not, to connect the present generation with the most ancient in its worship. Men want in religion what their own thought can use; this they may find in creed and discourse. But they also want that which binds them with humanity at large and at all times: this they find in the language of ritual, the unargumentative expression of feelings, decisions, enactments, the most durable and universal element of religion.
Ritual, moreover, is a compressed and rapid language, able to express much in a simple gesture. One need be no believer in magic to profit from, the dedication implied in making the sign of the cross, or in having it made over him. A nurse in a base hospital who has had occasion to witness many deaths, contrasts the simplicity of the Catholic rites and their evident value for the men with the semi-embarrassment of the Protestant minister, who must, as person to person, find 'something to say.' The rite ought to bring to the dying man an authoritative gesture of the spiritual life of the race, declaring to him that he in the solitude of passing is accompanied by a divine solicitude.
Such an affirmation cannot be rightly made, it is true, except by a thinker: Here Protestantism is right, as against any quasi-mechanical administration of sacraments. But neither can such an affirmation be competently made by any individual on his own authority: here the organization which to any man best represents our spiritual heritage is alone competent, for the reason that it alone can convey to him this meaning.
If religion were merely a concern of each man for himself, we might follow the suggestion of Mr. Wells and dispense with priests and rituals. But religion, as Mr. Wells himself exemplifies, is an affair of each man for every other, a continuous knitting process by which the race finely itself slowly wrought into a concord deeper than the understandings brought about by States, by economic interests, or by the arts and sciences. It necessarily, takes the form of propaganda, education, book-writing, and the rest; of appeals to the will, of receiving and signalizing human decisions—all visible and aggressive efforts to spread a disposition which is best spread by contact, by a union of idea and example. The difference between the printed appeals of Mr. Wells and the work of foreign missionaries is only a difference of degree, if we overlook the more profound commitment and the more intelligent estimation of his wider bearings on the part of the missionary. If it were not for the responsibility of every man's religion for that of his neighbor, the sharpest of the demands for the revising of creeds and ideas of authority would be wanting. If we expect religion not alone to be true, but also to be a responsible activity bearing its part in every social transition, we cannot dispense with rites or with the priesthood that must administer and interpret them.
But the time has surely come when mankind can accept the principle that the rite is made for man and not man for the rite, and when, without melting differences of expression into a deadly uniformity, community of meaning can be acknowledged beneath much of our ritual diversity. We do not wish sects to disappear, so far as they are signs that men are taking their differences of opinion seriously. But we would gladly wipe out the cleavages between many of our numerous sects which no longer represent actual religious divergences. There is, for example, a rite of baptism, significant and ancient and extremely various in form: if one sect chooses to express its meaning by immersion and another by sprinkling, no good reason appears why they should not do so. But if a question of validity is raised, and if I am excluded from a communion because I have not been immersed, the excluder is making of a variation in language a vera causa in a way which has no place in the age that is upon us.
The whole-case against the over-material conception of rite is gained when the Catholic churches acknowledge that a genuine Christianity can exist even though there is a discontinuity in the rite of transmission. This acknowledgment is at this moment becoming general; cooperation in fact is breaking the way for agreements in theory. The way to carry the good beginning on is not the way of iconoclasm, as Mr. Wells would have it, nor yet the way of further demonstrating the possibility of formless and riteless religions of the spirit. The way lies in the direction of a wider appreciation of the meaning of ritual, and the growth of a demand for the freer administering of ritual, much as the unchurched public at present is inclined to regard it as one of its prerogatives to claim the functions of priest or clergyman in celebrating a wedding or a death. The public judgment of the validity of a ceremony not too particular whether its knot is tied by Presbyterian or by Episcopalian, may serve as a rough guide for the clerical judgment. It is a severer public than usual that will now require of our religious institutions, as a primary test of their good faith, that they discover and acknowledge in their organization the unities of faith that underlie the diversities of rite.
The alternative is a grave one. For the world that emerges from the ordeal will not stand at the same point: the wine in any case will be new, and if the bottles are old, the total result will be worse, not better. It is easier for organized religion than for any other institution to justify itself in declining to change; because it is religion that must serve as the region of calm and stability in the midst of general upheaval. But in truth the only change required of it is that it make itself fit to serve as the pivot of transition, furnishing our returning warriors with a tangible hold on realities deep enough to dignify the sober constructive efforts of peace as well as the lurid occasions of war.
But the consumers of religion, the public in and out of the churches, while holding them responsible for this result, are not in a position to hold over their heads the lofty threat of a destroyed religion, or of abandoned churches, if these things are not accomplished.
For whether they do their work well or ill, we have no other religion and no other church than our own. If they fail us, it is not alone they that fail: it is our civilization that fails, and we with it. It is always possible that there is not enough clear insight and steady resolution in the whole body, lay and cleric, to throw the confused counsels of the moment into proportion, and to lead bewildered and timid, minds into effective grappling with the problem. History is the world's judgment seat; and if we deserve to go under, we shall not survive merely because we have conquered Germany. What we demand of the churches, then, we demand of ourselves; and in a wider sense, the word of McGill is the word for the hour. We are not yet enough in earnest about our own faith.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —
THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald